TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Hungary

27th October - 3rd November 2001


Leaders:
Keith Grant , Sándor Konyas

Local Guides:

Dr Gábor Kovács (Great Bustards)

Zoltán Petrovics (Zemplén Hills)

Driver:

Gáspár Markovics

Diary:

Saturday 27th October Arrival & travel to the Hortobágy

An early flight from Heathrow enabled us to have lunch just outside Budapest; then eastwards to the Hortobágy. We found the first of the Cranes just before reaching Nádudvar, and spent some time watching flocks feeding on the maize stubble. Further on, great skeins were flying in, giving some good views with the light behind us. Other birds seen included a good Great Grey Shrike on wires and a male Hen Harrier hunting the roadside field - we were to see both species regularly during the week. A Merlin was seen briefly as we passed in the coach, and there were good numbers of Corn Buntings. We arrived at the hotel in good time for dinner.

Sunday 28th October Hortobágy main fish ponds

As yesterday, the weather was bright, clear and calm, and we headed out after breakfast for the main fish ponds. These huge ponds were originally dug by Russian prisoners of war in the mid-19th Century. An immature White-tailed Eagle disturbed large flocks of ducks from the first lake. We drove slowly along the track as far as we could, then walked on to look over several lakes. Bearded Tits were quickly found in the reed tops, and there were good numbers of Great Crested Grebes on the water, together with Pintail, Gadwall and Teal. Our first Pygmy Cormorants were found sitting quietly at the reed edge, others then being regularly sighted over the next few days. A lone Caspian Gull was loafing on the water, again our first for the trip. At the first tower hide, a pair of Penduline Tits appeared briefly alongside, though not everyone got on to them. Moving on, we eventually found the goose flocks which, with care and patience, gave us reasonable views through the telescopes of Greylag, White-fronted, Lesser White-fronted and Taiga Bean Geese - an excellent comparison. Two further White-tailed Eagles were seen flying over, together with a Marsh Harrier and a flock of Shoveler. Several Clouded Yellow butterflies were a surprise this late in the season, and we continued to record this species throughout the trip. Red Admiral, Peacock and Painted Lady were also seen, together with Common Darter dragonflies. After lunch, we walked a short distance up the road to view a small group of Long-eared Owls - excellent views through the telescopes of these birds, just sitting there quietly looking back at us. Some local boys were also quite interested to view them through the telescopes. A woodpecker appeared, but this was just a Great Spotted. Driving back towards the hotel, we first of all stopped on the roadside to view a pair of distant White-tailed Eagles sitting at the edge of a wood, then stopped under a main flyway of Cranes moving to their roost. We stayed here until dusk, soaking up the atmosphere with Cranes flying past, several Hen Harriers quartering the steppe in front of us, several pairs of Little Owls perched on farm buildings and haystacks and, finally, a superb Rough-legged Buzzard - an excellent end to our first full day.

Monday 29th October The Hortobágy (west)

We left the hotel early today and despite the poor visibility, found two Saker Falcons sitting on a roadside pylon. They allowed quite a close approach allowing reasonable views through the telescopes. We then continued round to the western side of the National Park to meet with Dr. Kovács, who took us out on to the plain. A flock of 18 Great Bustards gave distant views, then as we moved on, a further group of 5 flew past, very close and with the light much improved. Not much else was found, and we returned our guide to his home in Nagyiván. We then stopped at a number of fishponds, finding a selection of distant shorebirds and gulls. After lunch, one particular lake yielded Little, Black-eared and Slavonian Grebes, Ferruginous Duck and a Pygmy Cormorant. We finally headed back towards Hortobágy village itself and positioned ourselves under a main flight path of Cranes into one of their roost sites. Probably over ten thousand birds flew across, a wonderfully atmospheric experience of sight and sound!

Tuesday 30th October The Hortobágy (north)

Overcast today, though much brighter and clearer than yesterday. Various Bulllfinches, Goldfinches, Goldcrests, Moorhen and two Kingfishers were found around the hotel before breakfast - then into the coach to check further fishponds in the north-west of the Park. We found good numbers of Mallard, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal, together with our first good views of Pochard. One particular lake had been drained and the fish were being harvested. A Spotted Redshank and various Curlew were found here. A Spotted Eagle was a great surprise and we watched this through the telescopes, eating a dead fish on a mud bank. A Peregrine gave a good performance as it lifted all the gulls and ducks, and it spent several minutes chasing a Lapwing, which outmaneuvered it fairly easily. We continued to find various Marsh and Hen Harriers throughout the day, some giving superbly close views. After lunch, we headed across the northern edge of the Park, stopping and scanning at various spots. We were ultimately rewarded with fine views of a Long-legged Buzzard and we spent the rest of the afternoon here, watching this bird and a Saker, and finding ourselves under yet another flight path of Cranes moving to roost - another excellent day.

Wednesday 31st October Travel to Sárospatak

Clear, bright and sunny with a light cool wind blowing, and up to four Kingfishers were present around the hotel. A prompt start after breakfast allowed us plenty of time for various stops en route, the first being a walk across the steppe north-west of Nádudvar. This was very quiet except for a Brown Hare disturbed soon after leaving the bus, various Hen Harriers quartering the long vegetation in the distance and a Rough-legged Buzzard overhead just as we returned to the bus - the moral being 'don't go for long walks!'. We also found a large hairy spider which Sándor said was poisonous and went by the Hungarian name of Csollopok. Our next stop was the sewage ponds at Balmazújváros. With the sun behind us, we had excellent views of the Little Grebes and various duck species on the pool, which included a brief view of a single Ferruginous Duck. Sándor then walked round a marshy area whilst we looked on from the embankment. Several Common Snipe were flushed, together with a single Jack Snipe. After lunch in Debrecen, we spent some time in the Debrecen Forest, finding Nuthatch, Short-toed Tree-creeper and three species of 'pied' woodpecker - Lesser, Middle and Great Spotted. A Black Woodpecker was heard briefly but failed to materialise. We then headed north to Sárospatak, arriving in good time for dinner.

Thursday 1st November Zemplén Hills

It rained overnight and our early morning walk round the castle park was rather dismal - some venerable trees but very few birds. After breakfast, the weather started to clear and we drove up into the Zemplén Hills where we explored an area of forest. Good views of Lesser and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, then a beautiful pair of Grey-headed Woodpeckers which allowed us all to view them through the telescopes at fairly close range. Further down the track, we branched off and Zoltán almost immediately found a Ural Owl sitting quietly against a trunk. This also allowed good views through the telescopes before flying off. A White-backed Woodpecker led us a merry chase up and down the main trail, always keeping ahead and just out of sight. Eventually we were back more or less where we started and everyone had excellent views of this rare species through the telescopes. A flock of Hawfinches were also seen, though this elusive finch was rather eclipsed by the White-backed Woodpecker. A brief stop in the vineyards at the bottom of the hill produced only a Black Redstart and flocks of Tree Sparrows and Field-fares. Back to the hotel for lunch and we then moved north towards the Slovakian border, stopping a various spots to scan for raptors. Eventually we walked up to overlook a quarry and stayed here till dusk, but the hoped-for Eagle Owl wasn't seen. Dinner was taken in a local restaurant near Mád, with samples of four local Tokaj wines during the meal.

Friday 2nd November Hernád Valley, Zemplén Hills and Tokaj A bright and clear day, though a cold wind kept the temperatures down. Our pre-breakfast walk round the Castle park was far more successful than yesterday, with excellent and prolonged views of both Syrian Woodpecker and a nice flock of Hawfinches. After breakfast, we drove across the Zemplén Hills, stopping briefly at a quarry to look for Eagle Owl - no sign. We then explored the Hernád valley, searching for Imperial Eagle - again no sign until we eventually had a very distant view of one over the far hills but this disappeared before we could get close. Continuing on, we stopped for a Mistle Thrush in a field, only to find a nice Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in one of the roadside trees. We also found a Syrian Woodpecker alongside the road at one point. Towards the end of the morning, we eventually spotted another Imperial Eagle soaring in the distance, and this bird steadily came closer to us until it passed high overhead, allowing everyone to view it through the telescopes. An excellent lunch near Mád and we then headed off in search of the elusive Black Woodpecker. Climbing gently up through the forest, everything was disturbed by some forestry operations starting up nearby! On the way back, a brief view by Warren was probably this species but no further sign. A nice party of Long-tailed Tits at the bottom of the hill were of the eastern white-headed form. We then returned to a quarry near Tokaj, and again searched the rock faces for Eagle Owl. Again no sign until we were on the point of giving up as the light was fading, when one suddenly flew up on to the top of a stand of trees on the skyline. We had good views through the telescopes of it calling, and we eventually gave up as it got dark. A hard day with the target species playing hard to get, but we were successful eventually with both Imperial Eagle and Eagle Owl.

Saturday 3rd November Return to Budapest & home

Another clear and bright day enabled us to have one final attempt for Black Woodpecker, but it was not to be! We drove to the river just downstream from Sárospatak, but a flock of Long-tailed Tits and a few Hawfinches were the only birds of note. Back for breakfast and we departed for our journey to Budapest. Numerous Buzzards (ne. Boozzurds!) were thermalling alongside the road and we also had really excellent views of two pairs of Imperial Eagles alongside the motorway. A fitting end to a very good holiday.

SPECIES LISTS:

BIRDS:

Little Grebe / Dabchick: Noted on 4 days with up to 6, 28th - 31st.

Great Crested Grebe: Noted on 2 days, 28th & 30th.

Black-necked Grebe: Noted only on 1 day, 2 on 29th.

Slavonian Grebe: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 29th.

Pygmy Cormorant: Noted on 3 days with c.30 on 28th, at least 1 on 29th, c.25 on 30th.

Great Cormorant: Noted on 3 days, 28th - 30th.

Grey Heron: Noted on 5 days, 27th - 29th, 150+ on 30th, 1 on 3rd.

Great [White] Egret: Noted on 5 days, often good numbers in the fields, 27th - 30th, also 8 on 3rd.

Great Bittern: Noted on 3 days with possibly 1 briefly on 28th, 1 flew across in front of the bus on 29th, 1 briefly on 30th.

White Stork: Noted only on 1 day, 4 on roadside field on 29th.

Taiga [Bean] Goose: Noted only on 1 day, 20 on 28th.

[Greater] White-fronted Goose: Noted on 2 days with up to 200 on 28th & 29th.

Lesser White-fronted Goose: Noted only on 1 day, at least 20 on 28th.

Greylag Goose: Noted on 3 days with c.100 on 28th - 30th.

Eurasian Wigeon: Noted on 3 days, 29th - 31st.

Gadwall: Noted on 4 days, 28th - 31st, max counted 14 on 29th.

Eurasian/Common Teal: Noted on 4 days, 28th - 31st, max 200 on 29th.

Mallard: Noted on 4 days, 28th - 31st.

Northern Pintail: Noted on 2 days, 28th & 30th.

Northern Shoveler: Noted on 4 days, with 25 on 28th, fewer on 29th - 31st.

Common Pochard: Noted on 3 days with 6 on 29th, 1 on 30th, 15 on 31st.

Ferruginous Duck: Noted on 2 days with 6 on 29th, 1 on 31st.

Tufted Duck: Noted on 2 days with 1 on 28th, 10 on 31st.

White-tailed Eagle: Noted on 3 days with 5 on 28th, 1 on 29th, 3 on 30th.

[Eurasian] Marsh Harrier: Noted on 3 days with 1 on 28th, 2 on 29th, 10 on 30th.

Hen Harrier: Noted regularly most days, 27th -1st.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk: Up to 3 noted most days.

Common Buzzard: Noted each day.

Long-legged Buzzard: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 30th.

Rough-legged Buzzard: Noted on 2 days, singles on 28th & 31st.

[Greater] Spotted Eagle: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 30th.

[Eastern] Imperial Eagle: Noted on 2 days with 2 singles on 2nd, 2 pairs alongside the motorway on 3rd.

Eurasian/Common Kestrel: Up to 6 noted most days.

Merlin: Noted on 5 days with singles on 27th, 28th, 30th, 31st & 1st.

Saker Falcon: Noted on 2 days with 2 on roadside pylon on 29th, 1 near the Long-legged Buzzard on 30th.

Peregrine Falcon: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 30th.

Grey Partridge: Noted only on 1 day, 2 coveys of at least 25 birds on 1st.

Common Pheasant: Noted each day.

Water Rail: Noted only on 1 day, several heard on 28th.

Common Moorhen: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 30th.

Eurasian/Common Coot: Noted on 4 days, 28th - 31st. Max 100+ on 29th,

Common Crane: Many thousands noted on 5 days, 27th -31st.

Great Bustard: Noted only on 1 day, 23 on 29th.

Grey Plover: Noted on 2 days with 6 on 29th, 6 on 30th.

Northern Lapwing: Noted on 4 days with 50+ on 29th, 25+ on 30th, c.10 on 1st, c.60 on 3rd.

Common Snipe: Noted on 4 days with c.12 on 28th, 6 on 29th, 5 on 30th & 31st.

Jack Snipe: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 31st.

Eurasian Curlew: Noted on 2 days with 4 on 29th, 30 on 30th.

Spotted Redshank: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 30th.

Common Greenshank: Noted only on 1 day, 3 on 29th.

Dunlin: Noted only on 1 day, 30 on 29th.

Common/Mew Gull: Noted on 3 days, 28th - 30th.

Yellow-legged Gull: Noted on 4 days, 27th - 30th.

Caspian Gull: Noted on 3 days, 28th - 30th.

Black-headed Gull: Noted on 5 days, 27th - 31st.

Rock Dove / Feral Pigeon: Noted each day.

Stock Dove: Noted on 3 days with c.200 on 28th - 30th.

[Eurasian] Collared Dove: Noted most days around the towns and villages.

Eurasian Eagle Owl: Noted only on 1 day, 1 near Tokaj on 2nd.

Ural Owl: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 1st.

Little Owl: Noted only on 1 day, 3 pairs on 28th.

Long-eared Owl: Noted only on 1 day, 14 roosting at Hortobágy on 28th.

Common Kingfisher: Noted on 4 days with c.6 on 28th, several on 29th, 6+ on 30th, 4 on 31st.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker: Noted on 3 days with 1 on 31st, 2 on 1st, 1 on 2nd.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker: Noted on 2 days with 1 on 31st, 2 on 1st.

White-backed Woodpecker: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 1st.

Great Spotted Woodpecker: Noted on 5 days with ones and twos 28th, & 30th - 2nd.

Syrian Woodpecker: Noted only on 1 day, 2 on 2nd.

Black Woodpecker: Noted only on 1 day, heard briefly on 31st.

Green Woodpecker: Noted on 2 days with 1 on 29th, 1 on 31st.

Grey-headed Woodpecker: Noted only on 1 day, a pair on 1st.

Crested Lark: Noted only on 1 day, 5 on 29th.

Meadow Pipit: Noted on 3 days, 28th, 29th & 31st.

White Wagtail: Noted on 4 days with singles on 27th - 29th, & 2nd.

[Winter] Wren: Noted on 4 days, 28th, 31st, 2nd, 3rd.

European Robin: Noted on 4 days, 28th, 30th, 31st, 2nd.

Black Redstart: Noted on 4 days with 1 on hotel roof on 29th, 3 on 30th, 1 on 1st, 1 on 2nd.

Common Stonechat: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 28th.

Common Blackbird: Noted most days.

Fieldfare: Noted on 4 days with up to 40 on 28th, 30th, 1st, 2nd.

Song Thrush: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 28th.

Mistle Thrush: Noted on 4 days, 31st - 3rd.

Eurasian/Common Chiffchaff: Noted on 2 days with 2 on 29th, 1 on 31st.

Goldcrest: Noted on 4 days with 2 near lunch stop on 29th, also 30th - 1st.

Bearded Tit / Reedling: Noted on 2 days with 20 on 28th, & heard on 29th.

Long-tailed Tit: Noted on 4 days, on 28th, heard on 31st, 4 on 2nd, c.10 on 3rd.

Marsh Tit: Noted on 2 days with 2 on 31st, 3 on 1st.

Great Tit: Noted most days.

Blue Tit: Noted most days.

Wood Nuthatch: Noted on 4 days, 31st - 3rd.

Eurasian Treecreeper: Noted on 2 days with 1 on 1st, heard on 2nd.

Short-toed Treecreeper: Noted only on 31st.

Penduline Tit: Noted only on 1 day, a pair beside the hide on 28th.

Northern/Great Grey Shrike: Up to 4 noted each day.

Eurasian Jay: Noted on 3 days, ones and twos on 31st - 2nd.

Black-billed/Eurasian Magpie: Noted each day.

Western/Eurasian Jackdaw: Noted only on 1 day, 4 on 31st.

Rook: Noted each day, including a huge flock thermalling on the outskirts of Budapest on 3rd.

Hooded Crow: Noted most days.

Common Raven: Noted only on 1 day, several on 2nd.

Common Starling: Noted on 5 days, 28th - 31st, & 2nd.

Yellowhammer: Noted on 3 days with twos or threes on 28th, 29th & 1st.

Reed Bunting: Noted on 4 days, 28th - 1st.

Corn Bunting: Noted on 5 days, often good numbers on the roadside wires, 27th - 31st.

Common/European Chaffinch: Noted on 4 days, on 28th, 30th, 1st & 2nd.

European Greenfinch: Noted on 4 days, on 27th, 29th, 1st & 2nd.

European Bullfinch: Noted most days.

Eurasian Siskin: Noted on 3 days with 2 over on 28th, flew across calling on 1st, flew over calling on 2nd. Both Siskins and Redpolls always 'fly overhead calling'! [KG].

European Goldfinch: Noted most days.

Common Linnet: Noted on 2 days with 5 flying over on 29th, 3 watched in roadside tree on 2nd.

Hawfinch: Noted on 3 days with at least 30 on 1st, c.12 on 2nd, 3 on 3rd.

House Sparrow: Noted each day.

[Eurasian] Tree Sparrow: Noted most days.

BUTTERFLIES & other insects:

Peacock: Noted on 2 days, 28th & 29th.

Red Admiral: Noted on 5 days, 27th, 28th, & 30th - 1st.

Comma: Noted only on 29th.

Painted Lady: Noted only on 28th.

Clouded Yellow: Noted on 4 days, 28th, & 31st - 2nd.

Green-veined White: Noted only on 28th.

Common Darter: Noted on 2 days, 28th & 31st.

AMPHIBIANS & REPTILES:

Common Tree Frog: Noted on 3 days, 28th, 30th & 31st.

Moor Frog Rana arvalis: Noted on 2 days, 29th & 30th.

Grass Snake: Noted on 3 days with 1 on 28th, 1 on 29th, 1 dead near hotel on 30th.

MAMMALS:

Roe Deer: Noted on 5 days with several on roadside fields on 28th - 30th, 2nd & 3rd.

Striped Field Mouse: Noted only on 1st.

Steppe Mouse: Noted only on 28th.

Brown Rat: Noted only on 1 day, 1 dead on road on 27th.

Red Fox: Noted on 2 days with 1 dead on road on 27th, 1 on 1st.

Brown Hare: Noted on 2 days with 2 on 28th, 1 on 31st.

Przewalski's Horse: Noted only on 1 day, 1 on 29th. A small group of this species was released into the National Park to try to establish a feral population, but this experiment seems to be failing.

The Cranes, as usual, were most impressive as was the sheer number and variety of raptors and owls - harriers, eagles, falcons, buzzards, and four species of owls all stand out. Other species of note included seven species of woodpeckers seen, with an eighth heard, albeit briefly. The variety of waterbirds was also stunning, including the East European specialities of Pygmy Cormorant and Ferruginous Duck. We had good views also of Bittern, Great Bustards and, of course, Hawfinches.

The food and accommodation, particularly the hunting lodge near Nádudvar, were excellent. Our sincere thanks to Sándor, Gáspár, Zoltán and Dr. Kovács for making this such an outstanding trip. I hope that you all thoroughly enjoyed yourselves and I look forward to seeing you again in the not-too-distant future.

Keith Grant, November 2001


© The Travelling Naturalist 2001